Every American should read Between the World and Me. The book is a letter that Ta-Nehisi Coates has written to his teenaged son, but it is more, way more than that. If you want to surrender your white privilege for a bit and experience what it is like to be a black person in America, immerse yourself in the arc of Coates’ life as he shares with his son and with us. You may be white in America and think that your life does not seem to have any “white privilege” in it. If so, then you need to read this book even more than most of us. We still have a ways to go if we really want to eliminate racial discrimination in our society, which was supposedly built on the precept that “all men are created equal”.
I remember being lifted to a new level of consciousness when I read The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison because it hit me so personally. I learned to read using the Dick and Jane readers with the perfect little children with their cute pets and their red wagons. These children were white and lived in a simple and healthy “white” world. When Toni Morrison contrasts her life events with those of those two happy-go-lucky little white children we are aghast that she had to suffer so when she was just a child. And I am not saying that there are not white children who grow up under equally horrifying circumstances, but the idea of an American child using this book to learn while experiencing, in her own life, the things she did is shocking and heart-rending. When Ta-Nehisi Coates talks about “the Dream”, and I assume he means the American Dream, he is, in part, talking about the sweet life depicted in those Dick and Jane readers.
Toni Morrison wrote her book in 1970. You would think that big contrasts between the lives of Americans of African Descent and the lives of white Americans would no longer exist but that is not what has happened. Coates suggests that much of the behavior that makes white folks fear black neighborhoods is just a series of defensive stances by black people who have even more reasons to fear and blame almost everyone. It is important that we understand this.
Coates talks about how difficult it is to understand the passive resistance of his forebears in the 60’s when they fought for their civil rights. He feels drawn to the more militant beliefs and strategies of Malcolm X and the Black Panthers. But he does not incite his son to violent activism. Coates goes on to show his son how, as he kept growing and studying, he changed. He expanded his world to include Howard University which had an indelible effect on him. He married. He and his wife settled in New York City and the city, so much more cosmopolitan than most American cities showed him that greater freedom is possible. This also affects his thinking. He studies history and gains perspective on the fact that white Americans are not alone in their imperfections.
Traveling to Paris mellows him and gives him additional insights. But his deeper understandings, although they may “fix” him, have not fixed America and that is the job that lays before us. This talented American writer should not have to fear what America holds in store for his beloved son. There is an awful lot packed in these 150 pages and the book flies by, but the implications stay. If we are serious about finding a way to honor the words (not the deeds) of our forefathers, if we want a strong, healthy nation that works for all of our citizens, then read this book and use it as a way to help us change. We need to change.
By Nancy Brisson